The inevitability of slates

The forthright announcement by three Chico City Council candidates—Dan Herbert, Mark Sorensen and Michael Dailey—that they are running as a slate is commendable for a couple of reasons. One is that it recognizes reality: The name of the political game in Chico is to win a majority of the seven council seats. Whoever has the majority controls the city’s direction in such vital areas as growth, budgeting, infrastructure and public safety.

It’s natural for people running for office to want to win not just a seat at the table, but also the ability to accomplish what they believe is right for the community. In Chico, that requires winning a majority of the council seats. If running as a slate affords a better chance of doing so, why not go for it?

Second, the three candidates’ decision to run jointly has called needed attention, in the media and among the citizenry, to the political process in Chico. The greatest concern seems to be that, by being honest about running as a slate, the three candidates are further cementing in the partisanship that has characterized the historic liberal-conservative split on the council.

But those who lament this partisanship and call for more “independent moderates” to run for council are ignoring reality. The very system in Chico fosters this kind of partisanship. Even if candidates wish to run as independents, they find that voters, financial backers and the political activists who help with campaigning will tend to group them into informal slates. People want to win, and the only real winners in the council game are those who claim four or more seats on the council.

How could the system be changed? After all, Chico’s political structure isn’t the only one in use. There’s a wide variety of municipal governing systems out there.

One obvious alternative would be to create distinct council districts and have candidates run in those districts, much as county supervisor candidates do today. That would have several consequences. It would make the candidates accountable to distinct constituencies, the residents of their districts. It would require them to get a majority vote to win, while allowing them to do the kind of face-to-face grassroots campaigning now becoming difficult as Chico grows. It would give neighborhoods the opportunity to elect the people who could best serve them. And, by eliminating citywide council elections, it would greatly diminish the tendency of candidates to group into ideological camps.

The biggest drawback to this system is that it eliminates all citywide elections. Citywide elections are valuable because they are a way to establish the overall direction residents want their community to take. One way to solve this is to make the mayor position one on which all city residents vote. That would give the mayor the authority that comes from having received a majority of votes, and with that he or she could establish a vision for the community and lead the council in that direction.

In any event, this might be a good time to look at alternative structures for the City Council. In 2004 a Charter Review Committee considered changes to the city’s structure but never dealt with the issue of partisanship on the council. Its impression was that the current system works just fine. But does it? And are there alternatives that might work better?

When candidates acknowledge that they’re running as a slate, it only confirms the obvious: Winning in Chico is about controlling the council. That won’t change until the system changes.